Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Film #97: Napoleon Dynamite

A reprint here of the interview Dark City Dame (of Noirish City fame) conducted with me in November 2009 regarding one of my favorite movies of the 2000s!

DarkCityDame: Let me start off by asking you this question: why did you select the film Napoleon Dynamite to be #23 on your list of the top 30 films from this decade?

Dean: It's really quite simple: no movie of the 2000s made me laugh harder. I cackled all the flippin' way through. I marveled at Jon Heder's mouthbreathing lead performance, at Aaron Ruell's whiny Kip, and at Jon Gries' way-too-confident Uncle Rico. I laughed at the bargain-basement shirts Napoleon wears, his shaded drawings of ligers and farting unicorns, and at Napoleon's obvious bliss at miming the flapping bird wings during a sign-languaged classroom performance of "The Rose." I laughed at that memorable dialogue, and those rigid camera set-ups. And I seriously almost burst a blood vessel guffawing at Napoleon's on-stage dance toward the film's end; that's a split-second in a theater where I thought I might choke from glee (it's a movie that benefits from seeing it with an audience, like any great cult film does). I mean, I could go on and on talking about all the merry details of this movie, extraordinarily well-directed by Jared Hess. Have you seen it, Dame?

DarkCityDame: Yes and no. While channel surfing I’ve stumbled upon it in the middle and watched it to the end.

Dean: It’s an easy movie to pick up on in that way. It makes for perfect television. I think one of the best things about Napoleon Dynamite is that, in its ease, it refrains from making fun of its characters. It finds them funny, yes, but it treats them as humans, not just as the butt of hateful jokes as in a movie like Welcome to the Dollhouse, for instance, which I think is quite cruel to its nerdy characters (and which is a movie I absolutely abhor--one of the meanest of all time, in my opinion, though that may be part of its point). By the end of Napoleon Dynamite, we find we've fallen in love with Napoleon, Pedro (the terrific Efren Ramirez), Kip and Deb (Tina Majorino) and even the wonderfully-named "villain" Summer Wheatly (Haylie Duff, Hillary's sister). Hell, I even loved Summer's always-incredulous-faced boyfriend Don, smartly played by Trevor Snarr (every time that guy came on screen, even as part of a huge crowd, I smiled). This is a movie that really has no villains. It's just too lovely for that. 

DarkCityDame: I liked the character portrayed by Jon Gries--Uncle Rico.

Dean: Yeah, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit award for his work, which is superb. On the DVD commentary, Gries (the son of Emmy-winning director Tom Gries, who did Helter Skelter, Will Penny and so much more distinguished work) talks about how he had to eat a lot of bloody steaks in his role as Uncle Rico. Rico is definitely a meat eater. Only problem is, the actor's a vegetarian, so he had to spit the steak out after each take. If you notice, you never see Gries swallowing anything. And that character of Rico is such a gloriously phony, lovable tough guy. I adore how he screams really high-pitched when Napoleon nails his ultra-cool van with some rotten fruit! And the goofy little fey pose he offers up when Deb takes his photo is pure genius. It make you root for him! 

DarkCityDame: Hahaha!

Dean: And that scene in the dojo with Diedrich Bader beating up on Kip is a scream (Jon Heder says that's the scene he had the hardest time keeping a straight face with during shooting--if you look closely, you can see Heder in the background trying to hide his laughter). But nothing trumps the moment where Napoleon performs on stage. It's strange to say but it's true: it's one of the most electric dance numbers since Travolta hit the floor in Saturday Night Fever! Seriously, no one in modern movies has such smooth and original moves as Heder sports in this sequence. And I absolutely adore the gentle love affair between Deb and Napoleon. Their slow dance together, to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," where he comments on Deb's dress sleeves, saying he likes them and that they're "real big," is something so sweet that I look forward to every time I see the film. And that final shot of them playing tetherball together, all to that transcendent closing song, with the school's water sprinklers spritzing delicately in the background, is utter cinematic perfection. It's the kind of perfection that makes me weep with joy. 

DarkCityDame: Too bad Roger Ebert wouldn't agree with you!

Dean: Really? Ebert didn't like the movie?

DarkCityDame: Nope. Check out what he thought over there on Wikipedia about this film. But Rotten Tomatoes gave it the thumbs up!

Dean: Okay, I'm reading it now. Hmmm...I see Ebert also compares it to Welcome to the Dollhouse. He writes: “Watching Napoleon Dynamite, I was reminded of Welcome to the Dollhouse, Todd Solondz's brilliant 1996 film starring Heather Matarazzo as an unpopular junior high school girl. But that film was informed by anger and passion, and the character fought back. Napoleon seems to passively invite ridicule, and his attempts to succeed have a studied indifference, as if he is mocking his own efforts.” But, like a few of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, I don't think this is the case at all!

DarkCityDame: Why not? 

Dean: Napoleon is an individual who's perfectly happy with the world he’s set up for himself. (The film's first lines: "What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?" "Whatever I feel like doing! God!!") Look, he's always trying to improve his station in life--he could use a few more bucks and a few more friends. But he's got plenty of confidence and comfort on his own. Shit, no one could get on stage and dance like he does at the end of the movie without a lot of inherent confidence. Napoleon hears a different drummer, that's for sure, but it's no prob. He's got Deb and Pedro and his hobbies and his pride, and even without that support system, he's devised some way of coming out on top. And, contrary to what Ebert thinks, he fights back quite handily against anyone who's dumb enough to confront him (it's right there in the film). Geez, I feel like the girl in Welcome to the Dollhouse plays the victim a great deal more; she's just a boneless punching bag in that movie. I dunno. Ultimately, it sounds like Ebert wanted this to be one kind of film and it turned out to be another, and THAT'S what he's angry about. He just couldn't get into the goofy spirit of it all. It's too bad. I respect his writing tremendously, of course. However, I never agreed with him every single time. In fact, I should say that Ebert often gave the benefit of the doubt to movies I felt should've been dismissed outright. Why he couldn’t offer a kind little film like Napoleon Dynamite more of a chance is beyond me; it just does not compute. Maybe he was infuriated by the dumb yuks Hess was successful in getting, while ostensibly smarter pictures failed miserably in this effort. But, personally speaking, this sweet, doofy, well-crafted movie represents the rare instance in which I revel in essentially idiotic, but somehow smart spirits. Napoleon Dynamite is like a math conundrum that's already been solved, and yet its solution is so simple few can come close to comprehending it, except to say that it results in truth.

DarkCityDame: Was this film released through a major studio? I wonder how well it did at the box office?

Dean: Fox Searchlight picked it up after it got tremendous buzz at Sundance. They paid for the song rights to the soundtrack, and for a tony credits sequence masterminded by graphic design artist Pablo Ferro, who did the credits for Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange and special sequences for Midnight Cowboy and Being There. About the only thing I don't think really works in Napoleon Dynamite is the post-credits epilogue Fox shelled out for after it became a hit, which has Napoleon attending Kip's wedding to Lafawnda (a fun, unusually mature Shondrella Avery). This epilogue feels like what it is--a stuck-on afterthought--and it has relatively few laughs (though I do greatly enjoy Kip's lame-o wedding song, which really makes it worth watching). But this is a minor point to pick at. In the end, Napoleon Dynamite is to me the most engaging comedy of the past 15 years. It's right up there with This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride in its quotability. And, not that it matters, but it did tremendously well at the box office, making $46 million worldwide on a $400,000 investment, easily becoming the most profitable movie of 2004.

DarkCityDame: I know that it's quotable. You can find a ton of t-shirts decorated with lines from it.

Dean: I know! "Vote for Pablo." I'd wear that shirt anywhere. That's because the film rings so true, even if it is delivered in a highly unusual manner. "My lips hurt real bad." I like that line especially. And I swoon with laughter when an irritated Napoleon has to go out and feed his grandmother’s llama--“Tina, you fat lard, come and get your food. EAT THE FOOD!” In fact, Hess (who penned the script with his wife Jarusha) staunchly admits much of the film's moxie hails from he and his brothers' own high school experiences in Idaho, where the movie was filmed (and, yeah, that’s Hess' mother’s llama). That basis in reality shows up in surprisingly believable ways, even though this is a very stylized movie. Actually, I should note here that I find Napoleon Dynamite quite beautiful to look at, which is not something one can say for most comedies. Every cloud in the sky, every Idaho hill, every telephone wire and chain link fence seems to be just-so placed in the frame (and the camera never moves!). Amazing! And I love the way everything in this small town is fifteen years behind the times. They have the internet, but the Dynamite family still doesn’t have a cordless phone? They still look at videotapes? They still listen to '80s music and sport '80s fashions? It's all so wonderfully weird, and yet not outside the realm of possibility.

DarkCityDame: It's almost like they're caught in a time warp!

Dean: Exactly. In fact, one of the funnier moments in this rather episodic movie has Uncle Rico, who painfully longs to be back in his '80s-era football hero days, bringing home a "time machine" which Napoleon tries out. (In the DVD commentary, Hess said that he and his brothers once purchased a machine very much like this--"Wait, let me add the crystals"--and all it did was shock them!)

DarkCityDame: Hahaha!

Dean: Good stuff. The DVD has a terrific commentary and lots of nifty extras, including the 10-minute black-and-white short that inspired the film. And Napoleon Dynamite has a splendid soundtrack, bedecked with a poppy original score by John Swihart. I'm not much a fan of '80s music, but the film sports some choice picks from that era, as well as from the '90s and 2000s (a White Stripes song, "I Can Tell That We Are Gonna Be Friends," opens the film). And it closes with “The Promise,” a catchy one-hit-wonder by When In Rome that I just can’t get out of my head after the film's over. I love that song so much I think I’ve got it committed to memory. Ahh, that ending to this movie...it's majestic.

Dean: I have to say, I've found myself wishing Hess and company would mount a sequel. With so many needless continuations out there, I could see so many places for this character to go! Here's a perhaps pedestrian idea: I’d like to see Napoleon travel to a bigger city in Iowa to compete in a tetherball or dance championship or something like that (although that might be a little bit too much like those bad sports comedies that have been coming at us in the wake of Dodgeball). Still, I bet Hess could make it work (now, it's too late, though--the actors have aged out of the roles). I liked very much Hess' wrestling movie follow-up Nacho Libre, starring Jack Black, even though it wasn't half as engaging as Napoleon Dynamite (Gentleman Broncos came much closer to matching Hess' original promise, but by the time that accomplished film arrived, it certainly felt like the director's heat had diminished). Admittedly, he and his wife Jarusha (the writer of the more recent Austenland) might have to try very hard to deliver a work as good as this one. But I still maintain high hopes for them both. Napoleon Dynamite is just a really charming, uproarious movie throughout. I'm passionately rooting for the Hess team to rise again, because I believe in my heart that subsequent works could be comedy of the first order.  Actually, in my mind, Hess is already at the apex.

Dean: And I have to reiterate: That dance scene at the end. Oh my gosh. It's perhaps the greatest solo dance scene in extra-modern movie history. And the way it functions as a kind of unexpected Rocky-like ending is just like nothing one could have imagined. It's so simply filmed and, other than that strikingly zoomy A-Team scored sequence, is the only time we see any movement from the camera. Jon Heder, moving with such exquisite precision to Jamiroqui's incredible "Canned Heat," while in those moon boots that were so beat up on set, they were nearly falling apart--oh my lord...what a dynamic bit of movie making we have here. Just incredible. I have no further words for it. I'm done.

DarkCityDame: Thank you, Dean for talking to me about this incredible comedy.   

Dean: Thank you, Dame, for giving me the opportunity to go on and on. Napoleon Dynamite is a piece of film work I could gush about endlessly. Literally, every shot in this movie makes me wanna go on a rant about how moving and hysterical it is. It's strange--there's a part of me that tells my soul it's a movie made for me, and only me. That so many others love it--worship it, even--just completely devastates me with silly ecstasy.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Also one of my favorites for all the reasons you state here. It has a kind heart and it absolutely holds up.